Who Wants to Live Forever?
The spec-fic world, be it Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or one of its hybridized relatives, has an obsession with immortality. It’s perfectly natural, of course–death is widely considered to be the most terrifying thing one can be presented with. Humanity and, indeed, all life is obessively preoccupied with not dying; it’s hardwired into our systems. The idea of circumventing death, whether via technology or magic or deals with Below or Above seems glorious, wonderful, even ideal.
In the end, however, it isn’t all that bad to die. I don’t mean that it’s a wonderful experience, per se, or that it should be desired before it’s time, but the idea that we are mortal isn’t such a bad one. Immortality, personally, strikes me as a pretty terrible fate for a human being. This idea isn’t new, of course–various properties have explored the concept in varying amounts of detail. The Highlander television series, in particular, explores the alienation and perpetual lonliness inherent in a never-ending life, as do various vampire stories. They also couple it with a fair amount of glamorous living, richness of experience, wonder, adventure, etc..
We kind of perfer to forget the real cost of immortality, and it isn’t a permanent feeling of ennui. It’s that we will, by all reasonable measures, cease to be human. Hell, we won’t even really be ‘alive’. Think about it–death is one of the defining, constant characteristics of all living things. With the exception of certain cancer cells (which are abominations) and viruses (which aren’t even really alive), everything dies eventually of old age or wear. The idea of permanence–of never needing to contemplate mortality outside of the odd swordfight (which, as Methos shows us in the Highlander TV show, are easy enough to avoid for milennia at a time)–would change you irrevocably. You would not understand things that humans instinctively react to, as you would have no frame of reference. Even if you had one, you’d eventually forget it.
If you can’t die, how do you understand fear? Can you appreciate Shakespeare? Do thrillers remain exciting? Yes, you can understand on some level how mortals might find them thrilling, but you will move from empathy to mere sympathy to simple alienation. It isn’t simply that you can’t have friends for very long before they age and die, it’s that all of your friends suddenly become boring. The only people you can have real, satisfying conversations with are immortals like yourself, and they’re both rare and (in the case of Highlander) want to cut off your head. Vampire societies aren’t much better.
Add to that interpersonal boredom and new level of boredom–running out of interesting things to do. Give somebody eternal youth, and how much can they experience? Travel (sure!), study (yes!), have fun (probably), but just how long do you keep that up? A century? Two? At what point does everything just look like everything else. Furthermore, consider what you no longer can experience–aging, illness, death.
Sounds good, right? Well, not to my mind. Aging, illness, death, decay–these are things all of us go through. They teach us, they build us, they make us who we are. Our emotional and physical connection to death are difinitive for the human experience. What’s more, they are essential to narrative. Every story needs an end; immortals, by their very nature, are robbed of a kind of catharsis their mortal counterparts can only experience through their demise, no matter how it arrives. They trade that in for what–a lifetime of partying, learning to kick ass, and sex with a never-ending stream of comparatively shallow and clueless creatures? An eternity of solitude?
No thanks. I’d rather die.
Posted on September 14, 2011, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged death, Highlander, Immortality. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
I like this topic, and am I think I’m going to write up a counterpoint to it for my own blog today. 🙂
Look forward to it, Katie!
You know what is the one step worse than being immortal? Groundhog Day.
Not only can you not die, you also cannot see *ANYTHING* progress forward except your own way of thinking. At least Highlanders and the like get to experience the world progressing forward and can experience it with them (even if the immortal will eventually pass them by.)
But the person stuck in Groundhog Day? A perpetual reboot? Knowing that anything they might want to do to try and keep themselves entertained for eternity has to start in the same podunk town every morning and involve the same repetitive series of actions of getting up, finding a car, driving to the airport and hopefully then flying to whatever new place he might want to go… knowing full well that this all has to be accomplished in one 24-hour period before it all gets reset and he has to start over again in the morning. You want to talk about ennui… that’s even worse. Knowing that the first several to half of the hours in your life are going to be exactly the same each and every day (except for a differences here and there on the micro level, like what clothes you put on, or the direction you take out of town.)
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